The world at war – again

It is 83 years this weekend since Europe crashed into war, beginning a global struggle that did not end until 1945 and which resulted in estimated deaths topping 75 million, many of them civilians. The Second World War was the largest conflict yet seen in the history of humanity, the most lethal, and the most destructive to that time. Yet, even as the world picked itself up again, afterwards, the spectre of another war in Europe loomed as the western and eastern blocs reoriented themselves in what became the twentieth century’s third great act, the Cold War.

The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, during the Battle of Westerplatte that opened the Second World War. Public Domain.

That ended in the early 1990s, thanks in large part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to allow the Soviet Union to dismantle. And while the spectre of nuclear armageddon did not actually go away, the risk of planetary insta-death did seem somewhat reduced. Certainly the idea of a territorial war in Europe seemed remote. And yet, thirty-odd years on, here we are. The Russian invasion of Ukraine clearly did not go as originally planned, and as matters stand it seems clear there will be no quick military end to that struggle – certainly not one that restores Ukranian sovereignty any time soon. Whether a political settlement is found remains to be seen, although it seems remote at this stage.

The enormous human cost of war

The human cost of these wars is, of course, immense: not just for the civilians involved, but also for those engaged in the fighting itself. It costs, mentally and physically. This issue was clear to some observers even in the mid-nineteenth century as war erupted across the United States, driven by railway and newly-invented technologies such as the breech-loading rifle and rotary machine gun. It came to a head during the First World War, where the intensity and duration of fighting was something not experienced in the wars of Napoleon’s time, a relentless assault on the mind as much as the body. And that was quite apart from the effects on civilians who, in theory, were not involved – but whose lives were turned upside-down and where, in any event, those in the combat zones could not escape.

We can be sure that something similar is being played out now in Ukraine. There will be a cost that remains partly invisible, even in our age of information-tech.

Humanity never learns.

Some years ago I wrote a book looking into the psychology of war – specifically, the psychology of ‘heroism’, using the New Zealand experience as a case study. It’s out of print, though there is a kindle edition for you to check out.

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11 thoughts on “The world at war – again

    1. Reducing our numbers may be beneficial, but modern war is too destructive to the earth and other creatures. Now I’m imagining time travel into the future to see how long we last and what things would be like after us, or perhaps when we blast ourselves back to a “primitive” state.

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      1. Yes, and you’re not alone there. Just this last century, we’ve had so many near misses. I loathe cockroaches with a passion but…maybe they wouldn’t be such a terrible successor.

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        1. The scary part about the various near-misses is that the potential for more of them seems very high, especially now. Sure there are fewer nuclear weapons than at the height of the Cold War, but that seems somehow academic – I’ve heard of horror scenarios in which a ‘limited nuclear war’ between India and Pakistan involving maybe 100 weapons would suffice to trigger a nuclear winter and take out the rest of us. And, of course, now we have a territorial war in Europe for the first time since 1945. Ouch. Being at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere seems rather beneficial just now (with due reference to Neville Shute ‘On The Beach’).

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          1. I don’t have the exact figures, but I’m sure I read somewhere that between them, the US and Russia [forget about anyone else] had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the entire world many times over. And yes, ‘On the Beach’ was, and still is, the scariest work of fiction I’ve ever read. 😦

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      2. Warfare, even in its modern industrialised form with high lethality, typically doesn’t drop overall populations. World population grew by 18.9 percent between 1940 and 1950 (from about 2 to about 2.5 billion), and that includes the fact that 70 million died during the Second World War. Nor does the principle apply to specific cohorts, ie: certain age brackets. In the First World War there was also a notion that it might be possible to force Germany to stop by killing the Reich’s soldiers faster than young men grew to military age. This didn’t work either. Nor could Ludendorff bleed France out, as he hoped with his assaults on Verdun in 1916 – although these DID have the effect of cracking French morale. All this said, no question that modern warfare is highly destructive – as Einstein once put it, the Third World War will be fought with nuclear weapons… and the Fourth with bows and arrows.

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    2. I have a funny feeling that war is hard-wired into humanity. The old theory that warfare began only after settled agriculture has been discredited of late with discoveries of hunter-gatherer bands, prehistoric massacres and so forth. My take is that it was probably a survival tactic that worked at the time, but like so many such tactics of the period is simply wrong these days.

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      1. -nods- very wrong, and also incredibly stupid, which is why I agree about it being hardwired. “Can’t help themselves.”
        So long as all our societies reward ruthlessness and ambition, I can’t see anything changing, at least not for the better. :/

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